Should Peace Movements Criticize Terrorism?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow 06/02/2001

For the last several months, there has been an important debate going on in semi-private among various organizers of the emerging and rebirthing movements, Jewish and otherwise, for a just peace in the Middle East.

The debate has included disagreement over whether those movements should criticize the violence that is being used by some Palestinians, including terrorist attacks on unarmed civilians, as well as criticizing the violence inherent in the Israeli occupation of the proto-Palestine of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

In the wake of the Tel Aviv terrorist bombing, and as we are on the verge of the June 8 world-wide vigils against the occupation, I think this debate needs to be public.

My own position (and that of Break the Silence, as expressed in one of the points of our OLIVE TREES FOR PEACE statement) is that a movement for peace and justice needs to criticize violence by Palestinians, especially terrorism, and to urge all Palestinians to heed those Palestinian voices that are calling for the use of vigorous nonviolent resistance to the occupation, instead of violence.

Before explaining my own views, let me first give as adequate an account as I can of the arguments of those who oppose doing this, or who mute the criticism of Palestinian violence almost beneath audibility.

The main argument is that the relationship between Israel and Palestine is not symmetrical. Israel has overwhelming power and is using it:

  • Israel has cut the Palestinian territories into small enclaves, separated by corridors of Israeli settlements and soldiers and military checkpoints.
  • Israel is besieging and blockading Palestinian towns and villages.
  • Israel has shattered the Palestinian economy, shuttered many of its schools.

None of these is true in reverse: Israel is not under occupation, siege, or blockade, its schools are open and its economy is working, there are no armed Palestinian settlers swaggering down Israeli streets, forcing curfews on Israeli towns, etc.

As facts, I think all of this is accurate.

And I think this situation is unjust, and anti-peace, and deserves to be criticized, protested, and (nonviolently) resisted, by Palestinians, by Jews, and by anyone else. We need to say that ending the occupation and the extra-territorial Israeli settlements will not only serve justice and peace, but will save Israeli lives — the lives of soldiers and settlers — as well as Palestinian lives.

The question is whether this asymmetry justifies terrorism, and whether it requires silence about terrorism from a movement for peace and justice.

I think not. And I think it is legitimate for me, and people who agree with me, to insist that actions against the Israeli occupation (like the June 8 vigils) also speak out against Palestinian terrorism, at the same time making clear that the power relationship between the people is not symmetrical.

Why do I think this?

First, because from every ethical standpoint the murder of unarmed civilians is vile.

I have been told that ethics is a world different from politics, and that from a political standpoint one should focus on the asymmetry of power and not address the ethical vileness of this terrorism.

But there are two things wrong with this view:

1. I think we all have seen that a politics that is severed from ethics becomes an unethical, anti-ethical, brutal, destructive, dehumanizing, tyrannical politics.

As Martin Buber wrote in "Recollection of a Death" (in Pointing the Way, p. 118):

"I cannot conceive of anything real corresponding to the saying that the end 'sanctifies' the means; but I mean something which is real in the highest sense of the term when I say that the means profane, actually make meaningless, the end, that is, its realization!

"What is realized is the farther from the goal that was set, the more out of accord with it is the method by which it was realized."

Buber was writing this in 1921 or thereabouts, in regard to the Leninist use of the "Red Terror."

AND — it applies with great power today, to both Israel and the nascent Palestine. The use by either of them of terror, torture, bombings, demolition of homes, sieges, assassinations, etc becomes part of the fabric of the society.

Those who are committed to a Jewish state, to a free Palestine, to a just and peaceful world, should condemn such actions for what they create politically, as well as for their ethical corruption.

2. Terrorism is itself a political act.

Read this from Uri Avneri, one of the most stalwart of Israelis committed to peace and justice, an opponent of the occupation from practically the instant of its beginning in 1967:

"When the al-Aksa intifada broke out and many Palestinians withdrew from open contacts with Israelis, Faisal [Husseini] did not retreat one step.

"We met several times at the Orient House and we held a big public meeting there. A week before his death he suddenly appeared, without prior notice, at an Israel-Palestinian press conference for the international press, in which we expressed our unshakable belief in peace between the two peoples.

"This spirit was prevalent at yesterday's funeral, too. The few Israelis who came to tender their condolences were received with open arms in the courtyard where thousands were crammed, hundreds came to shake our hands. One of the Israelis was invited to speak.

"In my heart I treated Faisal as a brother. For me, the frontline does not pass between Israelis and Palestinians, but between the Israeli and Palestinian peace lovers on one side and the war-mongers of both peoples on the other.

"Less than six hours after the Palestinian people united around Faisal's coffin, the war camp hit back.

"The suicide bomber who blew himself up among the boys and girls at the Dophinarium discotheque on the sea-shore of Tel-Aviv did a great service to the settlers, who are trying to convince the Israeli public that it is not because of them that the rivers of blood are flowing and that there is no difference between the settlements and Tel-Aviv.

"The collaboration between the Islamic fanatics and the extreme right-wing in Israel is a fact of life, as is the cooperation between the likes of Faisal and the Israeli peace activists.

"The Israeli government does not belong — to put it mildly — to the peace front. If not stopped by international forces, it will choose escalation. In the ping-pong game between Rehavam Ze'evi and Sheikh Yassin, Hizbullah and the settlers, the ball is a human skull.

"The heart of Faisal Husseini stopped beating when we need him more than ever."

Then why should a movement for peace and justice refrain from condemning a political act that is vile in its ethics and destructive in its politics? An article by Henry Lowi (excerpt just below) makes this same point even more colorfully. As Lowi wrote:

". . .those who sent [the Tel Aviv bomber] should be branded as criminals to the cause of a Free Palestine.

"There is no need to remind readers that, among Tel Aviv discotheque revellers one can find opponents of the occupation, enemies of Zionism, army resisters and deserters, and just plain folks who want to escape from the madness and relax.

By targetting them, what message does one send? Does one send a message of despair; i.e. look at how desperate I am, understand me, sympathize with me, embrace me?

"No way. One sends the following message:

"Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, we will get you. Our enemy is not the settlers. Our enemy is not the army. Our enemy is not racism. Our enemy is not colonialism. Our enemy is you, wherever you are, and whatever you are doing.

"This is exactly the message that Sharon, and Katzav, and their allies, and their predecessors, want Israelis to get. . . . The media spin, in support of Israeli violence against Palestinians, has now received an amazing boost. The spin will clearly be that the Israelis are the victims of Palestinian racist violence.

"Thus, the beneficiaries of Palestinian suicide bombings are not the Palestinian people, but the Israeli racists."

This leaves a question: If we oppose and criticize terrorism, what can we say about how to prevent it?

The official answer of the Israeli government has been — with more violence. But we have already seen that draconic blockades, sieges, bombings, etc. etc. all fail to stop such vile actions as the Tel Aviv bombing.

Given that all life is a gamble, how?

It seems to me that what would ENHANCE the chances of stopping terrorism — without a guarantee — is a serious peace, because it would redirect energy into society-building instead of rage and hatred. (But it might for a brief period also bring about a burst of terrorist attempts just as agreement is near, as has happened in the past, for the precise purpose of preventing agreement.)

And within its own boundaries, Israel would certainly be correct in taking the measures any state would take to prevent terrorism.

Finally, let me repeat: I think all of us who are committed to justice, to peace, to the safety and freedom of Israel as well as the emerging Palestine, ought to insist on incorporating this perspective into actions for peace — including June 8. Where we vigil and what our signs say and what message is given the media are important.

Shalom, Arthur

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center